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There are many things that can separate the professional athletes from the rest of us – better genetics, more time to train and compete, an athletic clothing contract and very regular massage. While we usually can’t do much about the first three factors, the fourth is worth looking at more closely.
Massage is often gleefully misunderstood. It is a very diverse therapy that suffers from being embarrassingly oversold by some shonky advocates who speak in clichés that are often simply scientific untruths that still drain your wallet in a truly real way. You should not let this detract from the real benefits of massage, many of which are only now beginning to be explained by scientific study. So how can massage can help the athlete – and how or when it doesn’t it?
While massage is a well-accepted as a therapy for relieving muscle tension, “You’re really tight” is a predictable and meaningless phrase often used in massage therapy. Tissue texture doesn’t necessarily correlate with pain or other symptoms. However, if you have a regular masseur or masseuse, they should be able to feel relative changes in tension between in your muscles. Very often, this tension in one area of muscle creates an imbalance of strain or compromised flexibility/function further along the chain, which can lead to further injury.
This has long been claimed, but lacking in evidence. However a study at McMasters University (published 2012) used repeat muscle biopsies to show that even just 10 minutes of massage can curb inflammatory response in the body in much the same way anti-inflammatory meds do. That is, the response of inflammatory cytokines in the muscle cells is blunted. Researchers also found that massage signals muscle to build more mitochondria, the energy-producing units in the centres of cells that play an important role in healing. The study also disproved a popular falsehood – that massage clears lactic acid from tired muscles.
Improved circulation was another common claim about massage, but research had trouble making it stick. Then a University of Illinois at Chicago study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (April 2014) showed that massage not only helped blood flow speeds – the big news was that it also produced a change in vascular function both at the site of exercise (legs) and at some distance away from it. This improved vascular response only tapered off after 72 hours post-massage. Researchers thought that this improvement in systemic circulation (i.e. ‘big picture’ circulation – the flow of blood to and from the heart) may help reduce muscle soreness after exercise
One estimate states that about 75% of all massage purchases are for lower back pain – so it had better work! Fortunately, it looks like it does. A 2008 review (Furlan et al) of 20 years of studies – 13 trials and about 1600 participants concluded that massage helped improve symptoms and function in sub-acute and chronic lower back pain.
A 2009 study in the sadomasochist’s must-read, the Clinical Journal of Pain, found that people with chronic neck pain had a 55% improvement after a course of weekly massages over 10 weeks.
Managing stress and heart rate can be very important for performing in the big moments – and massage can help. A Swedish study in 2010 showed that an 80-minute hand-and-foot massage (good news for people who are a bit thingy about strangers poking their body) significantly lowered people’s heart rates, cortisol levels and insulin levels – all of which help lower overall stress on the body.
Of all things, massage has had a strong evidence-based link with alleviating depression and anxiety. A 2010 meta-analysis in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry concluded that massage (and the type of massage was not significant) triggered the release of oxytocin and serotonin, which reduced stress hormone levels, heart rate, blood pressure, and boosted mood and relaxation. For the serious athlete who has to pick themselves up from disappointment, defeat or some significant distraction that may upset their recovery, this is a big deal – it may be as important as any physical relief to muscles that massage can offer.
The trend towards ‘structural’ massage techniques (e.g. Rolfing) – ones that focus on straightening or aligning your meat because therapists claim it is crooked or imbalanced is increasingly under scientific scrutiny. A meta-analysis of massage for back compared the effects of garden-variety relaxation massage — classic Swedish, therapeutic, etc. — with allegedly more advanced “structural” massage methods and found the results were the same.